There’s no adjoining bar or a pastry shop to thriving An Nam, instead the bright and quirky Sothearos Blvd restaurant - with its neon stone lion guards and mint-green interior - shares its premises with that most Vietnamese of small businesses: a beauty salon.
My first taste of the menu was while having my nails painted, surrounded by the buzz of hairdryers, American Idol and a tinkling bamboo water feature. However luxurious, picking up fresh spring rolls and sipping iced coffee between freshly lacquered nails isn’t much of a food experience. Next time, my friend and I decided, we would save the meal for after the manicure.
Walking back into the restaurant, An Nam welcomes with a sweetly kitsch aesthetic and an eclectic array of ornaments and wistful Vietnamese art. The French vibe of the decor might be because owners Randy Long and chef Jacqueline Remacle are French-Cambodian and French-Vietnamese, respectively. The pair arrived from Paris in 2001 to open An Nam and have built what could well be described as a local establishment, offering an extensive roll-call of authentic Vietnamese cuisine from the north, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City and served in appealing blossom-hued ceramics.
Perusing the French and English menu, over an embroidered tablecloth covered by glass [on the tasteful side of kitsch], my table of three ask the waitress, dressed in a purple ao-dai, for the house specialty.
That would be either phở, or the bánh bèo stuffed with shredded prawn, says Randy, coming over.
Layers of gelatinous steamed rice ‘pancakes’ spread around green yellow plates like petals of a flower, the bánh bèo is a delicate, morsel-like appetiser that demands to be wolfed down, while trickily coaxed between chopsticks.
Scattered on top of the snowy pancakes are salty, shredded dried prawn, snips of spring onion and chewy fried onion, to be scooped up with the pancakes and dipped in nước chấm.
Before we have finished devouring the bánh bèo , other plates arrive.
Our second appetiser is bánh chả giờ của – six crispy spring rolls, hedged next to a generous forest of mint and lettuce. Stuffed with pulled crab meat and vermicelli, they are a satisfyingly deep-fried appetiser to the slippery bánh bèo.
Served on yolk-yellow dishes and rose plates, our meal is full of contrasts. The most surprising is a rich, classic clay pot-style thit nước dừa, which comes steaming to the table in a ceramic mock- green coconut shell. The retro crockery collector in me is hearts-a-flutter. Inside the kooky coconut, tender chunks of pork are simmered in coconut water and caramel. The meat is melt-in-the-mouth and surrounded by a sweet and salty liquor that tastes slightly too sharp to be drunk as a soup.
To cut through the umami-overload, a bowl of riotously coloured pickles is placed next to the glossy stew: bean sprouts, garlic chives, slivers of red capsicum and red onion, quickly preserved in a sweet vinegar sauce. A boiled egg that has been cooked in the salty-sweet broth is another homely accompaniment, together with steamed rice.
Yellow mango salad (gỏi xoài cá sấu) brings a burst of crunch and sourness to the meal, especially in its thick-cut form. Rather than the shredded tangle of Thai and Cambodian sour-green salads, An Nam’s dish features thick match-sticks of carrot and semi-ripe mango, flecked with chilli, fresh Vietnamese mint and crunchy smoked fish.
After our initial encounter with An Nam’s exhaustive menu, it was almost relieving to find that dessert is taken out of our hands.
A sago sweet pudding is complementary at the end of the meal, each night a different fruit or legume. Tonight it is a pleasant banana sago in coconut sauce – a mild end to my most enjoyable Vietnamese meal this side of the Mekong.
118 Sothearos Blvd, near the Hong Kong Center [The Salon is next door]